The Brown Baggers Book Group discussed Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon which is also JMRL’s Big Read choice for 2011. The consensus was that the book is very dated, but we did agree that its cliché nature may be because it was the detective genre’s first; it is the paradigm for that genre. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister is another book that sets the stage for an important and very American genre, that of the Old West. It was published in 1902. To picture that book’s protagonist is to envision the many Gary Cooper film characters. The line “smile when you call me that, Mister” originated with Wister’s Virginian.
The “Falcon” discussion focused on the characters, plot, and writing style. Of the former the group felt that the characters were very flat. Because the author did not flesh them out, they lacked depth and interest. It was impossible to relate to them, to empathize with them. The men were macho – remember the year is 1930 – and the women were all sexualized. Sam Spade barreled through the book with as many facial expressions as one character could possibly show (maybe these are personality intricacies) and an imperious attitude toward legal professions.
The flat quality of the characters carried over to the plot and to the writing style which was less like a novel than a screen play. The reader will not find the convoluted stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or current detective novels. We caught ourselves looking for clues and sophisticated plot where there were none. We got cigarettes, booze, and fashion descriptions instead – props were most important.
But again we should remember that this was a first and, when read during its time, was well received. The Brown Baggers, during the discussion of the book’s writing style, wondered if Hammett had published the book in installments first. In the following website a Hammett scholar confirms that, in fact, that is exactly what happened; “Black Mask” magazine published “Falcon” in five monthly installments:
The Maltese Falcon was published in 1930. The best sellers of that year were:
- Cimarron by Edna Ferber, Doubleday, Doran
- Exile by Warwick Deeping, Knopf
- The Woman of Andros by Thornton Wilder, A. & C. Boni
- Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, Houghton Mifflin
- Angel Pavement by J. B. Priestley, Harper
- The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Farrar & Rinehart
- Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, Doubleday, Doran
- Chances by A. Hamilton Gibbs, Little, Brown
- Young Man of Manhattan by Katharine Brush, Farrar & Rinehart
- The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet, Simon & Schuster
- Twenty-Four Hours by Louis Bromfield, Stokes
- The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe, Dutton
- The Strange Death of President Harding by Gaston B. Means, May Dixon Thacker, Guild Publishing Group
- Byron by Andre Maurois, Appleton
- The Adams Family by James Truslow Adams, Little, Brown
- Lone Cowboy by Will James, Scribner
- Lincoln by Emil Ludwig, Little, Brown
- The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, Garden City Publishing Co.
- The Outline of History by H. G. Wells, Garden City Publishing Co.
- The Rise of American Civilization by Charles Beard, Mary Beard, Macmillan
~ Reluctant Blogger